Out of the Inbox: Bank of America’s "Irregular Credit Card Activity" Alert

image Several months ago (previous post), I wrote about Bank of America’s online fraud-warning resolution center for consumer cards, MyFraudProtection. It’s a great service, though a little hard to use.

At that time, I showed only the online functions. The more important piece is the email alert (below). It’s a great way not only to reduce fraud, but also maintain good customer relations.

But it’s still read-only. What I’m really waiting for is a truly two-way email, or better yet, text message. That way I can simply respond to the bank’s question in a few seconds and both of us can get on with our business. 

Email alert from Bank of America: Irregular Credit Card Activity (11 Jan. 2011)

Email alert from Bank of America: Irregular Credit Card Activity 


1. See our recent reports: Paperless Billing and Banking and Email Banking: Revitalizing the Channel.

Ally Bank Posts Real-time Call-center Wait Times on Homepage

imageAlly Bank made news this week as one of the few major banks offering consumer PC/scanner-based remote deposit (USAA and US Bank also offer it, note 1). But that new feature has not yet filtered out  to its website. While disappointed in not finding what I was searching for, I did notice something even better:   

imageThe wait time for its call center, updated in real-time, right at the top of every page (see screenshot, below). 

The first few times I checked the site, it always said zero and I wondered if the bank left it permanently there to demonstrate its call-center prowess. But now the wait-time has moved out to six minutes (11 AM Pacific time on a Thursday…a couple days in front of the U.S. tax deadline).

But that’s even more important for public acknowledgement. When wait times stretch to several minutes, customers can decide to call back later or spend a few minutes checking Facebook before a banker comes on the line. It also gives Ally’s customer service department a big incentive to keep the queue at a reasonable level. It’s a complete win-win.

The bank should also add a click-to-call feature so customers can skip the queue and simply request a call-back, a technique that can potentially cut support costs by shortening average call time (see note 3). Ally does offer live chat on its Contact Us page. However, it must be a lower staffing priority as I found intermittent availability on a Friday morning (8:30 AM Pacific) even though wait times for the call center were zero.

imageBottom line: Ally’s real-time availability is so much better than simply plopping a smiling face in the corner of your website and inviting calls. The estimated hold time demonstrates the bank’s respect for its customers’ time, something rare at large consumer brands in any industry. It’s a great tangible benefit to the “ally” positioning.

Because it raises the “state of the art” in online support, we are awarding it our first OBR Best of the Web for 2011 (see note 2).  

Ally Bank homepage with real-time call center wait time monitor (14 April 2011)

  Ally Bank homepage with real-time call center wait time monitor


1. Post updated at 10 AM: Originally I said the new Ally service was
“mobile” remote deposit, Ally let me know that it was PC-based online
remote deposit (previous post on US Bank’s service)
2. Since 1997, Online Banking Report has periodically given OBR Best of the Web awards to companies that pioneer new online or mobile banking features. It is not an endorsement of the company or product, just recognition for what we believe is an important industry development. If anyone knows of other financial institutions offering a similar feature, let us know and we’ll update the post. Ally is the 81st company to win the award since 1997 and the first in 2011. Recent winners are profiled in the Netbanker archives.
3. For more information on delivering “live help,” see the most recent issue of Online Banking Report.

New Online Banking Report Published: Delivering "Live Help" Online

image At Online Banking Report we’ve written a few reports about online customer service over the years (see note 1). However, we’d never looked in-depth at so-called “live help,” (note 2) which includes:

  • Live chat: predominantly audio, but can also be one or two-way video
  • Click-to-call: a button used to request a call-back from an agent
  • Co-browsing: sharing a screen between user and agent

Co-browsing is still a little too out there for most customers, so we focused primarily on live chat and click-to-call, both relatively widely adopted and proven money makers for online retailers.

clip_image002Bottom line: After reviewing dozens of white papers, talking to a number of industry experts, looking at a hundred websites, and live chatting with service reps in the wee hours, I’ve come to a definitive conclusion on the value of live chat.

It depends. 

Clearly, live chat delivered perfectly can cut costs and lift revenues. But it can also confuse customers, drive up support costs, and get in the way of moving from point A to point B on a website.

clip_image002[10]But as generation text moves into their prime banking years, banks will be chatting more and more with customers, both online and via mobile messaging. So eventually, most financial institutions will need to offer some variation of Live Help to remain competitive (note 3).


About the report

Delivering “Live Help” Online (link)
Live chat and click-to-call promise to increase sales, make customers happy, and save money; what’s not to like?

     Published: April 5, 2011

     Authors: Jim Bruene, editor & founder, Online Banking Report 
                    with Philip Britt, founder, S&P Enterprises

     Length: 60 pages (12,000 words), 14 Tables

     Cost: No extra charge for OBR subscribers, $495 for everyone else here


1. The most recent Online Banking Report on email customer service is here (2004)
2. Our inspiration for the latest issue was Jeffry Pilcher’s post in The Financial Brand (Jan. 2011).
3. However, the first order of business remains turning email into the valued support tool it needs to be. See Email Banking: Revitalizing the Channel (Aug. 2010)

BankSimple’s Vision Statement is All About High-Touch

image Over the years I’ve published more than a million words and this is the first time I can remember using the term “vision statement,” and in a headline no less. I’ve spent enough time in large companies to know that when you hear “vision statement” it’s time to run for the exits. Usually, even the employees don’t buy it, let alone the customers it’s supposed to impress.

However, BankSimple’s vision statement is not only believable, but also sets a great tone for the startup’s upcoming launch. It’s also cleverly positioned on the homepage to “jump up” above the fold as you scroll down.

Why does it work? Everyone knows that BankSimple, with its Twitter DNA and $3 million in venture funding, will have good tech. So the startup focuses on people and service in its vision statement to make it clear that it’s not some aloof, high-tech company where it takes a search warrant to find the customer support number, but an actual human-powered organization (see details below). Nice touch (note 1).



Breaking “the vision” down point by point


It’s no surprise that the non-bank bank is tackling the fee issue. It’s in the news and it’s always high on the list of customer dissatisfaction. But notice they are not using the word “free” or saying “no fees.” They are just saying they will be transparent with pricing and will not surprise with penalty fees when you can least afford them.



Everyone talks about service, so this isn’t particularly novel. But the use of “prioritize” and “real” will resonate with the segment they are targeting.



image Grabbing the mobile positioning is brilliant. That’s absolutely where the market is headed, so you might as well make it a key differentiator. And while no one knows what “true mobile banking” means, it sounds good.




I’m not sure this adds a whole lot to the vision. In the text by this point, the bank talks about “plain, simple language.” Sounds OK, but not as compelling as the other points. I’d have nixed it and kept it to a tidy four-point vision instead.



The tagline for this point is, “You’re a real person, not an account number.”

Bingo. Here’s a pure-play online bank run by uber-techies, but they are saying they are really all about the people. High tech. High touch. Love it!


Note: Yes, I’m aware that BankSimple abbreviates to BS. And no, I’m not its biggest fanboy. See this self-proclaimed “love letter to Bank Simple.”

Customer Service Tips: Google Verifies Contact Info via Interstitial Page

From time to time (2x per year?), Google drops an interstitial after login to verify that it has the correct email address and mobile phone number on file.

While financial institutions are far more likely to have current contact info on their online banking customers, it’s still advisable to check in annually to verify contact info, especially with the growing importance of mobile.

And while you are at it, ask customers for alternate email address(es) and phone number(s).

Google interstitial page displayed after logging in to Gmail (7 March 2011)

Google interstitial page displayed after logging in to Gmail (7 March 2011)

Do "High-Touch" Branch Experiences Help Your Brand?

image I honestly don’t think branches will be extinct anytime soon. Yes, I think they will drastically shrink in size/staff as transactional activity is eliminated. But they are part of the American landscape, provide a convenient place to open accounts, and reinforce your brand.

Or do they?

I spent 34 minutes in a branch today and came away with a number of brand impressions, none of them good. Here’s the blow-by-blow account (skip to the Bottom Line section if you, too, have recently sent a wire from a bank branch). 

Yesterday, I went to a small branch of a major bank to send a $20,000 international wire, something I’ve done only once before. I missed the “12 or 12:30” cutoff time and was told I’d need to come back tomorrow (note 1). They were nice about it, but it was 15 to 20 minutes wasted, although I did grab a tasty Americano across the street, so it wasn’t all bad.

Today, I was near a much larger branch, so I decided to give it a try, hoping that the process would go faster with more staff available. It was mid-morning on a Friday (note 2) with only two or three customers in the branch and at least six employees, so I thought I’d made a good decision. Unfortunately, the only person available that could process an international wire was the busy branch manager (note 3), and I was directed to a seat on the couch where I waited for 12 minutes watching the six employees handle a trickle of customers.

No one approached me during this time to offer an update on the wait. Finally, the harried branch manager stepped over and apologized for being “slammed” (even though the branch was nearly deserted) and went on to explain his staffing woes that would soon be over since there were “three job offers out at that moment.” 

At that point, I had to turn over my driver’s license, tell him my Social Security Number, and then wait another 22 minutes as he hammered away on the computer to complete the wire. At least once I’m pretty sure he was typing an email to someone, and he also made a quick phone call about another matter. Along the way, he asked me for the symbol for British pounds. Since I didn’t know, he proceeded to the back room (where more employees were hidden, note 4), and since they didn’t know, he said he would Google it. And he did. 

Next, he handed me all the info on the transfer so I could proof his work. And, like the last time I sent an in-branch wire, an error popped out. The form stated payment was for a boat, which, besides being incorrect, was especially interesting since the money was headed to London. He blamed the autofill on the computer (why would autofill be enabled on wire transfer forms?).

I said I wished this could be done online, and he said it had to be done in branch to reduce fraud and money-laundering. While that may have been an okay answer, he then contradicted himself and said if I did more than two wires per month, I should consider the bank’s $100/mo commercial service. So much for the fraud problem, I guess.

imageFinally, he walked across the room to call in the wire (why didn’t he use the phone on his desk?). He completed the process by scratching in pencil on the back of his business card my confirmation number and U.S. dollar equivalent of the transfer (see inset). Apparently, the branch’s wire system doesn’t provide an automated receipt.

Bottom line: Branch proponents say that consumers value the “personal touch” and hand-holding that branches provide on major transactions. And that those warm feelings create trust and positive brand associations. 

So what were my takeaway “brand impressions” after my experience today? (And I’m not saying these things are necessarily true, but they are my very real perceptions). 

  • They do not value my time: First, I had to make a second trip since I’d missed the cutoff. Then on the second trip, it took 34 minutes to complete the process.    
  • The bank is inefficient: The branch manager had to spend 22 minutes with me to generate $50 in fees. And I was in a huge, 10,000 square-foot structure with a large parking lot and 30-foot ceilings, that was serving a trickle of customers with a bevy of staffers. 
  • The staff is poorly trained and/or lack tech support: The branch is “slammed” with 3 customers across 6 employees! The branch manager has to use Google to fill out the wire transfer form.
  • The systems are cobbled together: Employees have to find currency abbreviations on their own. The wire had to be “called” in by the branch manager.  My “receipt” was handwritten on a business card. 
  • They made me feel less than secure: I had to tell him my Social Security Number out loud, which is always unnerving when you don’t really know who’s listening. And they left me scratching my head about wire fraud.
  • It must be a crappy place to work: They were down 3 employees, despite a 9+% unemployment rate.  

On the plus side: The staff was very friendly, cookies were on the counter, and I got a blog post out of it. That helps. A lot.


1. I’m not sure why they couldn’t take my info today and send the wire tomorrow, something they had done before on a domestic wire. 
2. He did mention something about an “operational audit” going on, so this might not be the normal experience. Although the last time I sent a wire at another branch, it took even longer because that manager “was learning the new system.” 
3. The astute reader will notice that today is Wednesday, not Friday. I wrote this a few weeks ago on a Friday afternoon and held it until today. Frankly, I wasn’t sure whether to publish another “analyst whines about customer service” post. I promise it’s my last one of the year.
4. I’m not naming the bank, because this is a story about two visits to two branches which may or may not reflect what goes on in other parts of the bank. But I will name the bank via private email if you promise not to publish it. Just drop me a line.
5. Graphic upper right: Kinesis

Arvest Bank Adds Suite of Calculators and Other Non-Transactional Services to iPhone App

image Like American Express, Arvest Bank is one of the dozen or so U.S. financial institutions with multiple apps in the Apple iTunes App Store (note 1). The bank has one app for account access and another which can be used only to find its branches and ATMs (app link).

Arvest iphone app v2.0

However, the non-transactional app, which debuted last November, is undergoing a major facelift, with version 2.0 due in the store shortly. The bank offered a sneak peek on its blog this week (see inset).

The update contains four new functions:

  • Calculators: The app now includes access to a suite of 40 financial calculators (e.g., loan payment calculator) saving customers the time and hassle of searching for similar tools within the App Store.
  • Customer Connect will use the user’s GPS location to provide location-sensitive customer service contacts, a great way for a financial institution to demonstrate their commitment to local service. 
  • Current Rates are easily accessible from a single button on the main page.
  • Arvest News houses its blog feed.

Bottom line: While these functions have been common on websites for a decade, as far as I know, this is the first app from a bank or credit union that includes all these features. Nice work.

1. In a search at AppFinder.com, there are currently 583 iPhone apps in the finance category with “bank” in their name or description. Another 483 contain “credit union” for a total of 1,066 banking apps. Not all of these are from financial institutions, but an estimated 70% to 80% FI apps.

Let’s Do a Better Job Handling Rejected Online Loan Applicants

image If you’ve ever worked at a financial institution, you’ve no doubt heard the often-true horror stories from the loan department. You know the ones, where senator so-and-so’s spouse or the CEO’s brother were turned down for a car loan (see note 1).

The problem with automated loan systems is that there is no human doing a reality check on denied applications. Was it really a deadbeat applying or did someone just make a mistake on the application form? You can bet if a senator’s spouse had applied for the loan in person the loan officer would have picked up some clues that maybe this app deserved some extra scrutiny.

But the flip side to human involvement is discrimination, whether intentional or not. A huge benefit to automated loan decisioning is the virtual elimination of certain biases from the process. Computer algorithms only evaluate the factors they’ve been told to look at. Nothing more. Nothing less. 

And because computer analysis has put more science into the underwriting process (notwithstanding the recent housing bubble), most people agree that it’s generally been good for the bank and (most) consumers. But even the best system will generate a certain number of false negatives leading to the occasional embarrassing decline.

So it’s worth considering installing a second-look system in your online process, providing wrongly denied applicants another chance at proving themselves worthy, before they end up embarrassing your CEO at their next family gathering.  

And why might I be thinking these thoughts? Yesterday, I went online to accept the direct mail offer from a major credit card issuer who’s sent me more than 100 solicitations over the past decade (note 2). And I was flat-out rejected. Either I fell victim to a false negative or the issuer’s underwriting is not in sync with their marketing.

The application process = great
The online acceptance process itself was flawless. I typed in my registration code, answered a few questions, and hit enter. It had taken about 3 minutes up to that point. Then wham! Twenty-four seconds later, the application was denied (note 3).

The rejection process = sucks 
And even though I could live without the card (note 4), it’s frustrating and disappointing to be turned down flat with no recourse. Especially after being aggressively solicited for years.

And the company pretty much disowns you after the bad news. The website returns a two-sentence rejection thanking you for your interest, saying that they couldn’t approve the request, and that they’ll followup in writing in a couple weeks explaining their reasoning. And BTW, please don’t apply again for at least 45 days. No apology. No email. No phone (or even email) to contact for more info. No referral to the credit bureaus or other resources. Just a simple, cold brush-off.

So I went back to the direct mail letter and called the number listed there. The bank rep said there was no way to look at the app I’d entered minutes earlier to see why it was denied. All he could do was take another new app, but he warned that the system wouldn’t like seeing multiple apps and would likely reject it again.

Recommendations: You cannot avoid making credit denials, lots of them. And you can’t avoid the occasional false negative. But you can, and should, create a way for online applicants to ask for a second look, and perhaps correct any errors that they might have made. And if you can’t do that, at least be compassionate with the immediate messaging and try to offer some helpful resources.  

My three-step, face-saving, loan-denial process:

1. Thank the applicant and apologize for not meeting their needs. Say this both on the website and in a followup email.

2. Explain that although you’re not perfect, there appears to be circumstances in the application that preclude you from offering credit at this time. Refer them to Credit Karma, Quizzle, or other credit resources to view their credit score and learn more.

3. Provide a second-chance option either through email or telephone for applicants with strong credit to ask for a human review. 

Optional: For customers you must turn down now, but who you think might be good future prospects for loans and/or other products, or who are already profitable existing customers, consider sending a consolation prize: $5 statement credit, a Starbucks card, two-for-one movie certificate, etc. 

Second-look apps would need a higher level of scrutiny to ensure against those trying to game the system. But there will likely be some gems uncovered in the process. 


1. My favorite personal story of botched celebrity banking happened at First Interstate Bank of Washington where I worked in the late 1980s. Bill Gates, whose mom was on our board, supposedly used what was then our “state-of-the-art” telephone bill-payment service. Apparently, we didn’t send off his mortgage payment and the late fee we ate was more revenue than the entire bill-pay program generated in a month. It happened a few months before I started working there, so I can’t vouch 100% for its accuracy. But I can tell you it was a popular story within the bank with a “failed tech” angle and a juicy tidbit about the outlandish size of the mortgage on the Gates property.    
2. This is a rare situation where I’m not naming the company in a public blogpost because a credit denial is such an individual thing. It doesn’t seem fair to single them out for one incident which is most likely not indicative of the normal experience there. However, I will disclose the name on an individual basis if you email me and promise not to post it publicly.  
3. I’m not sure what went wrong with the application. I have several decades of excellent credit, zero inquiries in the past 6 months, reasonable debt-to-income, and a decent level of household income. And I checked all three bureaus recently and everything was fine. However, the bureaus do have inconsistent, and partially incorrect, info about my employment history. But the application did not ask for employer name, so I don’t see how that could have sunk it.  
4. I actually planned to use the card frequently; it had better terms than the one I was hoping to replace.

Part 2: Chase Apologizes for Outage in Customer Email but is Light on Details

image Over the weekend, Chase Bank sent a short email apology to its online customers. Overall, the message was fine and now the bank can check that off its to-do list.

I’m glad the bank didn’t waste a hundred million dollars giving everyone a $5 credit. A simple apology is the best approach, preferably during the actual outage. This message, six days after the initial downtime, is a bit sub-par for a company with the resources of Chase (for a review of its initial communications, see our previous post and today’s review at The Financial Brand).

Analysis of the Chase email (screenshot below): Overall, the email message was adequate. The title was good, “Please accept our apologies.” And that was all most people needed to hear. But I’m a little surprised by the lack of detail provided within the message. Especially, considering the much better note posted to Chase.com over the weekend, then apparently taken down (see note 1 below).

In Sunday’s email, Chase reassured customers that “(your) account information was not compromised.” That’s great, but the bank could have scored extra points by saying exactly what went wrong, how they fixed it, and what they are doing to prevent a recurrence (this info could be delivered via a link to more detail on the website.) 

The bank should also have made the apology unconditional. Chase’s exact words (italics mine), “we apologize if this created difficulties” and “please accept our apology for any inconvenience this may have caused.” Forget the conditions. Assume it inconvenienced everyone and just straight-up say you are sorry.

Another no-small thing. A note of apology should be from an actual person (like the bank’s website message, note 1). The lack of a signer imparts a nagging impression that no one at the bank has stepped up to own the problem. An email address or phone number for additional info would also make it seem more sincere.

Finally, according to the info posted on the site over the weekend, the bank is covering late fees caused by the outage (see note 1). Perhaps that email went only to bill-pay customers (which I am not). But still, why not mention it?  


PS  One last question and then we’ll move on, promise. Why was the online apology taken down after just a few days? Many customers affected by the outage will never see the all-important public apology on the bank’s homepage (see screenshot at The Financial Brand).

Chase Bank apology email (19 Sep 2010, 2PM Pacific)

  Chase Bank apology email (19 Sep 2010)

1. According to the New York CBS affiliate, the following appeared on the Chase website on Friday, 17 Sep (link):

We are sorry for the difficulties that recently affected chase.com and we apologize for not communicating better with you about this issue. As you may know, we experienced a significant service interruption and Online Bill Payments that were scheduled to be sent on September 13, 14, or 15, 2010, were sent by the morning of September 16, 2010.

If you scheduled a payment to be sent during those dates, but do not see it reflected in your payment activity by September 16, 2010, please contact us.

We are working hard to make sure that any late fees you may have incurred as a result of this processing delay are being refunded:

  • If your payment was to another Chase account (for example, Chase Credit Card Services), we are automatically refunding any late fees.
  • If your payment was to anyone other than Chase (for example, your telephone service, utilities or another financial institution), we are contacting many payees to prevent late fees from being charged.
  • However, if your payee charged you a late fee, please call us at one of the numbers below or visit your nearest Chase branch. We will refund the late fee to you.

We recommend that you keep this letter in case you need to provide information to your payee.

Please be assured that Chase’s online security has not been compromised as a result of this service interruption. Your accounts and confidential information remain safe and secure.

Giving you 24-hour access to your banking is of the utmost importance to us. This was not the level of service we know you expect, and we will work hard to serve and communicate with you better in the future.

Again, please accept our apology for this disruption and thank you for your patience. If you have any questions, please stop by your nearest Chase branch or call:

  • 1-800-935-9935 for Personal accounts
  • 1-877-CHASEPC (1-877-242-7372) for Business accounts
  • 1-800-848-9136 for Home Lending and Auto accounts
  • For credit card accounts, please call the number on the back of your card


Patricia O. Baker
Senior Vice President
Chase Executive Office